20 Tips for Naming a Startup

Aug 15, 2011   //   by Eran Savir   //   Blog, Marketing, SaaS, Tips for Entrepreneurs  // 

Finding a name for your statup is hard. On one hand, one would say that this task is a waste of time. For every successful company with a great name, 20 Tips for Naming a Startupthere’s one with a crappy name that did just fine and it doesn’t seem like a name has much influence on the outcome at all. Sure, you could build a very successful company despite having a lousy name. But, on the other hand, you also shouldn’t dismiss it as unimportant. Part of the startup game is to try and remove unnecessary friction to your growth. Why not stack the odds in your favor?

One more reason why choosing a great name is important: it’s a one-time cost and effort to get a great name, however the benefits are forever.

If dismiss it completely, you might have that small doubt about your branding. Once you have that doubt, it keeps on nagging, and it’s growing every year. The longer you wait, the more expensive this decision is, and the less chances you’ll actually do it.

These are suggestions not laws, and not all of them are weighted equally:

  1. It provides a clue to what you do: Generally speaking, there are few options for a starup name: A) a name with a meaning (example: Salesforce.com, MailChimp). B) a name which has a twist to a word related to your business (example: Picasa, Quora). C) a name that means nothing or is not related to your business (example: Wufoo, Uber). The A type are usually easier to remember, the B type are smarter in a way, and as such are also easy to remember. The C type are harder to remember, however it’s easier to trademark and truly own them, then infuse them with meaning. I personally like simple names that convey a bit of what the company actually does or stands for.
  2. The “.com” has to be available: The name’s .com domain has to be available for purchase from one of the domain registrators, or you should be able to purchase it from its current owner at a price you’re willing to pay. Don’t play tricks with the domain name like including hyphens, and stay away from clever domain names like del.icio.us for a simple reason; it’s difficult for people to type in domains that way. By the way, del.icio.us eventually bought and switched to delicious.com
  3. The twitter @name has to be available: The same as the .com domain name. If it’s not available, don’t choose this name. It’s not as hard as finding an available .com domain, but it’s getting harder every day. No tricks with numbers and underscores and stuff.
  4. The facebook page should be available: To test this, try visiting http://facebook.com/yourname and see if there’s something there.  Or, do a search on Facebook and see what you find.
  5. Make it unambiguous when spoken: This one is important, because you don’t want your best marketing tool – word of mouth, to be un-functional. The best way to try it is to ask a friend what does he think of the name, and ask him to spell it. If too many of your friends get it wrong, choose a different name.
  6. Buy the .com domains around your main name: if there are few options that people can spell your domain name, buy the whole set of different names and redirect them to your main domain name. For example if you choose the name: SmartTable.com, make sure you also buy SmarTable.com.
  7. Make it easy to remember: There are two options to test this one: the first option is to write the name down, and after a day try to see if you still remember it. If you do, try also the second option: talk to a friend about the name, then after few minutes of conversation, ask him again, if he remembers the name. If he doesn’t, it means it’s hard to remember.
  8. Keep it short: Generally, try to stay 10 characters or under. There are plenty of good reasons why it’s important to keep it short, however here two: A) The fewer the syllables, the easier it is for people to say, remember and type. B)  In the age of Twitter, the longer name you have, the less space you have to write in Twitter. The same goes for those who Retweet your tweets. Great examples of one and two-syllable names:  Dropbox, Mint, ZenDesk.
  9. Try to get your main keyword into the name: It signals to potential visitors what they might find on the website and it helps with SEO. For example: SurveyMoney.
  10. Don’t leave out vowels or add punctuation: If you do, you’ll need to keep on spelling your name from now on (“…the name is Flicker without the E”). Note that Yahoo eventually bought the domain name Flicker.com.
  11. Make sure it’s not an offensive word in one of the popular languages: Check the name in different dictionaries such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, etc. You don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings and make a joke of yourself (and of your company).
  12. Make it unambiguous in Google: Some of the ways to bring users to your site are using the search. It’ll be quite difficult for people to find your company’s website, if your name is something like “Ginger”. It’ll also be difficult for you to place yourself in a good position in Google search results. However there ARE examples where a startup started with a generic word and went on to be pretty successful (example: Mint.com).
  13. Start early in the alphabet: Before the days of Google, this was one of the older tricks in the book to be listed on top of your competitors on YellowPages. In today’s world, this is done to make sure your company appears on the first page where few companies are listed in a multi-page directory.  Also, the first page of a multi-page directory usually passes more SEO authority to your website than subsequent pages.
  14. Start with an uppercase letter: If it’s good for Google, Amazon, Yahoo and thousands of other really successful companies, it’s good enough for you. Don’t make yourself spend the time making sure that from now on, people will spell your name with a lower case letter. It just doesn’t worth the effort.
  15. Check that it’s legal: This sounds obvious however most entrepreneurs skip this step. The good news is that if you’ve passed the steps above (.com domain, twitter name, etc) you are most likely to pass this one successfully. In the U.S., you should take a quick peek at http://uspto.gov.
  16. Don’t name your company after yourself: There are few famous examples of successful companies that proudly carry the founder’s name (example: Dell), however to most customers this name will sound a bit amateurish. The other reason is that if you name the company after yourself, too many people are going to want to talk to you.  That’s ok when you’re the only person in the company to talk to, but becomes problematic as your startup grows and there are other people trying to sell/support/market.
  17. Don’t Use An Acronym: It’s harder to remember, difficult to pronounce and it’s hard to get emotional about a three letter acronym. Yes, I know, there are successful companies like IBM which used the acronym quite successfully. By the way, all 3 letter domain names are taken already.
  18. Pay attention to character sequences in multi-word names: If you have a name that is two words stuck together, then be mindful of what character ends the first word, and what starts the second.  I’d stay away from names where both of those letters are the same.  Example: BetterReading is sub-optimal (because Better ends with “R” and reading starts with “R”.  There’s also that popular example of unfortunate character sequences:  expertsexchange.com.  When capitalized properly, this name is just fine (ExpertsExchange) which is what the site owners intended.  But, it turns out, this can be confused as “ExpertSexChange” (which is not what was intended).
  19. Have a story:  When someone asks (and they will), so why did you pick X for your name, it’s nice to have something relatively interesting to say.  Names are a part of your personality, and the absence of a personality is rarely a good thing.
  20. Seek timeless instead of trendy: It seems that every generation of startups has their own “trendy” approach to names.  Examples are the dropping-vowels thing (like Flickr), the breaking up of words (like del.icio.us) or the newly fashionable “.ly” names.  I’d suggest that names that don’t necessarily indicate when you started are a good. Pick a name that is timeliness, not one that people will see 10 years from now and not think “Hey, they’re one of those companies…”.

Save yourself some of that future pain, and invest early in picking a decent name.  You may still get it wrong, but at least you’ll know you tried.

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